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Wellington is as far as you can fly from Heathrow before you start coming back. New Zealand’s capital is almost 19,000km and at least 24 hours away. The city is small by European standards, with only 200,000 people calling it home.
And yet Wellington is a regional technology hub. It is the nation’s biggest technology user and the government is based there. Wellington is also home to Weta Workshop, established by director Peter Jackson to create computer graphics for The Lord of the Rings movies. It is where New Zealand technology entrepreneur Rod Drury began Xero, the small business accounting software-as-a-service market leader. Dozens of small tech startups inhabit buildings all over the small South Pacific city.
New Zealand has a booming home-grown technology sector. It’s not just Wellington. Auckland and Christchurch have technology scenes just as exciting and vibrant, although maybe not as concentrated.
For a small nation, New Zealand has a wealth of technical talent. But its own resources are not enough to meet the demand for skilled workers.
Three years ago the New Zealand Technology Industry Association (NZTech) asked members to estimate how many more skilled workers they needed over and above the flow of recruits coming from the nation’s universities. They said they needed 10,000 new people over three years. The number is often quoted by politicians talking up the demand for skilled workers.
NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller said the number is a rough estimate, and project is under way to get a more precise picture of the demand for talent.
“It’s not enough to say we need this or that number of tech people,” he said. “We need to have a clear idea of what skills we need to bring in and which ones are in the pipeline coming through the universities.”
Even so, 10,000 seems about right. According to Muller, the industry draws around 2,500 new recruits from local universities each year and attracts about 3,000 skilled technology workers from overseas.
“New Zealand Immigration is one of the few departments of its kind around the world actively working to bring in talent. It’s easy for our tech firms to recruit overseas and it’s easy for skilled people to come here,” he said.
A Russian software tester in New Zealand
Ira Sevastyanova is software tester at Orion Health who moved to New Zealand from Krasnodar, Russia. She likes living in New Zealand because of the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that Auckland city is close to nature.
“You can be in the middle of town, then 10 minutes later you can be at the beach. People are generally more laid-back, open-minded and not overly political, which is refreshing after living in Europe where politics has a greater effect on your daily life,” said Sevastyanova.
She added that Orion Health is a “very welcoming company”, with opportunities for career advancement.
“I began in the operations department and was studying computer science part time when a software testing role became available. I was encouraged to apply and got the role. If you want to try something new and you have the right attitude, then the company will work hard to make it happen,” said Sevastyanova.
What helps attract talent is that the companies doing the bulk of overseas recruiting are New Zealand’s showcase tech startups. Muller listed Xero, Vend, eRoad, Orion Health and Wynyard.
“They give people the opportunity to work in the kind of hothouse environment they’d find in Silicon Valley, but with all the advantages of the New Zealand lifestyle,” he said. “You can work at the sharp end of the industry during the day and be an hour from ski fields or surf beaches.”
Before starting to research the demand for tech skills, NZTech approached New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for background data. The ministry said technology is not only New Zealand’s highest paid employment sector, it is also the one where pay rates are growing fastest. What’s more, it is the industry sector with by far the highest number of advertised vacancies.
Troy Hammond, owner of Talent Army, a specialist tech recruitment business in Wellington, said he fills 20% of the vacancies on his books with overseas applicants. UK and South Africa have been his main sources in the past, now Australians and South Americans are now also arriving in large numbers.
“There are people with skills who turn up here on a holiday visa looking for a job, but more often than not we find them. We find specialists who show an interest in New Zealand on their LinkedIn pages or in social media,” he said.
According to Hammond, the best way to get to New Zealand is with a talent work visa, which lasts for two years. “You need to find an accredited employer first, then apply. It’s designed to be quick and should only take two weeks, but lately it’s been taking longer because of the demand,” he said.
The other route is with a skilled migrant visa, it’s open-ended but harder to get – though in New Zealand 'hard' is relative. Compared with other countries the nation’s bureaucracy is small and easy to deal with.
Hammond said people with the right skills can have job offers before they arrive in the country. Typically his candidates land in New Zealand with three or four job offers.
New Zealand Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) CEO Paul Matthews stated that the skills shortage is acute at professional levels. “We need more good senior devs and dev managers, analysts, architects, IT project managers and others. Security consultants and data analysts or scientists are in short supply. We simply aren’t keeping up with demand,” he said.
“As with other parts of the world, we have less of a shortage at the technician level, partially due to trends in the industry such as cloud computing removing the need for servers and larger infrastructure in SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises] – which make up a large part of the New Zealand business community.”
Good English language skills
Everyone Computer Weekly spoke to in New Zealand emphasised the need for good English language skills. “It’s important people speak English fluently. With regards to a prospective candidate’s application, we need to be able to validate their qualifications,” said Mark Capill, the commercial director at Orion Health, a healthcare systems provider exporting to 25 countries.
Speaking fluent English doesn’t mean you have to be British. New Zealand is remarkably open to people from other cultures. “Different cultures just make our workplace richer. We already have a very diverse, multi-cultural environment which makes for very interesting lunchtime conversations,” said Capill.
Xero, which is one of New Zealand’s highest-profile tech companies, has in part met the demand for international talent by opening overseas offices. It now has 20 worldwide. Even so, it still helps talent move to New Zealand.
“We’re one of a few companies in the country accredited with Immigration New Zealand, which can make the process of moving to New Zealand much easier for immigrants who want to work here,” said Xero New Zealand managing director Anna Curzon.
“We closely support new team members, especially those that relocate from a different country. For example, we’ll always meet new members at the airport and ensure that they and their family are taken to their Xero-funded accommodation. We also arrange city tours to help new members settle into their new home and get orientated,” she added.
“We often pay a relocation allowance, as well as the family's travel costs, and provide help with information and connection to government agencies to set up an IRD [Inland Revenue Department] number and financial institutions to set up bank accounts, as well as discounted health insurance.”
This is standard practice with New Zealand technology firms, though Orion’s Capill said: “We are more than happy to help immigrants move to New Zealand, but we’d rather they moved here because they wanted to make the commitment to the country first. Moving half way across the world is a huge decision. We want to make sure people are making such a major life decision for the right reasons.”